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People salvage belongings from their homes after Hurricane Eta destroyed the village of Quejá in Guatemala; a flooded area in Quejá, Guatemala.

Luis Echeverria/Reuters (wreckage); Esteban Biba/Pool/AFP via Getty Images (flood)

Devastation in Central America

Two powerful hurricanes have affected millions in Guatemala and Honduras. Will they prompt a new wave of migrants to the U.S.?

They heard the slab of earth cracking off the mountain, but by then the mudslide was already burying their neighbors. So the people of Quejá—the lucky ones—ran out of their homes with nothing, trudging barefoot through mud as tall as their children until they reached dry land.

All that’s left of this village in Guatemala is their memories.

“This is where I live,” says Jorge Suc Ical, standing atop the sea of rocks and muddy debris that entombed his town. “It’s a cemetery now.”

They heard the slab of earth breaking off the mountain. But by then, the mudslide was already burying their neighbors. So the people of Quejá ran out of their homes with nothing. They trekked barefoot through mud as tall as their children until they reached dry land. Those who made it were the lucky ones.

All that’s left of this village in Guatemala is their memories.

“This is where I live,” says Jorge Suc Ical, standing atop the sea of rocks and muddy debris that entombed his town. “It’s a cemetery now.”

The two storms destroyed tens of thousands of homes.

Already crippled by the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis, Central America is now reeling from another catastrophe: the mass destruction caused by two ferocious hurricanes that hit in quick succession in November. The storms, two of the most powerful in a record-breaking season, demolished tens of thousands of homes, wiped out roads and bridges, and swallowed vast swaths of cropland.

The coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic crisis had already crippled Central America. Now, the region is reeling from another catastrophe: the mass destruction caused by two brutal hurricanes that hit back-to-back in November. The storms were two of the most powerful in a record-breaking season. They destroyed tens of thousands of homes, wiped out roads and bridges, and swallowed large areas of cropland.

Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Using a boat on a flooded street in Comunidad Campur, in Guatemala

Now many are asking if the devastation might also spark a new wave of migration, north to the United States. The magnitude of the ruin in both Guatemala and Honduras is only beginning to be understood, but its repercussions are likely to spread far beyond the region for years. The hurricanes affected more than 5 million people, creating a new class of refugees with more reason than ever to migrate.

Now, many are asking if the devastation might also spark a new wave of migration, north to the United States. The scale of the ruin in both Guatemala and Honduras is only beginning to be understood. The hurricanes affected more than 5 million people, creating a new class of refugees with more reason than ever to migrate. The devastation’s impact is likely to spread far beyond the region for years.

Jim McMahon

A Decade to Recover

Officials conducting rescue missions say the level of damage brings to mind Hurricane Mitch, which in 1998 spurred a mass exodus from Central America to the U.S.

“The devastation is beyond compare,” says Admiral Craig S. Faller, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, which has been delivering aid to survivors of the storm. “When you think about Covid, plus the double punch of these two massive, major hurricanes back-to-back—there are some estimates of up to a decade just to recover.”

The relentless rain and winds of the November storms, Hurricanes Eta and Iota, downed dozens of bridges and damaged more than 1,400 roads in the region, submerging a Honduran airport and making lagoons out of entire cities in both countries.

There are already signs of what could be the start of a migratory wave from the region. That will test the Biden administration, which has promised to be more open to asylum seekers but may still find it politically difficult to welcome a surge of people at the border (see “Immigration Reboot?” below).

In Guatemala and Honduras, the authorities admit they can’t address the misery created by the hurricanes. The nations have called on the United Nations to declare Central America the region most affected by climate change, with warming ocean waters making many storms stronger and the warmer atmosphere making rainfall from hurricanes more damaging.

Officials conducting rescue missions say that the level of damage reminds them of Hurricane Mitch. In 1998, that storm spurred a mass exodus from Central America to the U.S.

“The devastation is beyond compare,” says Admiral Craig S. Faller, the head of the U.S. Southern Command, which has been delivering aid to survivors of the storm. “When you think about Covid, plus the double punch of these two massive, major hurricanes back-to-back—there are some estimates of up to a decade just to recover.”

The rain and winds of the November storms, Hurricanes Eta and Iota, were relentless. They downed dozens of bridges and damaged more than 1,400 roads in the region. And the water engulfed a Honduran airport and made lagoons out of entire cities in both countries.

There are already signs of what could be a migratory wave from the region. If the devastation does set off a new wave of migration, that will be a test for President Biden. The Biden administration has promised to be more open to asylum seekers. But welcoming a wave of people at the border may still be politically difficult (see “Immigration Reboot?” below).

In Guatemala and Honduras, the authorities admit they can’t address the misery created by the hurricanes. Warming ocean waters are making many storms stronger in the area. And the warmer atmosphere is making rainfall from hurricanes more damaging. As a result, the two nations have called on the United Nations to declare Central America the region most affected by climate change.

“Hunger, poverty, and destruction do not have years to wait,” said President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, pleading for more foreign aid. “If we don’t want to see hordes of Central Americans looking to go to countries with a better quality of life, we have to create walls of prosperity in Central America.”

Giammattei also requested that the United States grant temporary protected status to Guatemalans currently in the U.S., so they won’t be deported amid the natural disaster.

With hundreds of thousands of people still crowded into shelters in Guatemala, the risk of coronavirus spread is high. Aid workers have found widespread disease in remote communities hammered by the twin storms, including fungal infections, gastritis, and flulike sicknesses.

“We are facing an imminent health crisis,” says Sofía Letona, the director of Antigua to the Rescue, an aid group. “Not just because of Eta and Iota, but also because these communities are completely unprotected from a second wave of Covid.”

Just as pressing are the illnesses caused by a lack of food, safe drinking water, and shelter from continuing rain.

“Hunger, poverty, and destruction do not have years to wait,” said President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala, pleading for more foreign aid. “If we don’t want to see hordes of Central Americans looking to go to countries with a better quality of life, we have to create walls of prosperity in Central America.”

Giammattei also requested that the United States grant temporary protected status to Guatemalans currently in the U.S., so they won’t be deported amid the natural disaster.

Hundreds of thousands of people are still crowded into shelters in Guatemala. That means that the risk of coronavirus spread is high. Aid workers have found widespread disease in remote communities hammered by the twin storms. People in these areas are suffering from fungal infections, gastritis, and flulike sicknesses.

“We are facing an imminent health crisis,” says Sofía Letona, the director of Antigua to the Rescue, an aid group. “Not just because of Eta and Iota, but also because these communities are completely unprotected from a second wave of Covid.”

Just as pressing are the illnesses caused by a lack of food, safe drinking water, and shelter from continuing rain.

Esteban Biba/Pool/Afp Via Getty Images (mudslide)

A mudslide caused by Hurricane Eta killed dozens and destroyed the village of Quejá in Guatemala.

‘We Have Nothing’

With little government support, Guatemalans have had to come up with creative solutions. Near the border with Mexico, people crowd into handmade rafts to cross immense lakes created by the storms. To cross one river, people hop into a wire basket attached to a zip line where a bridge used to be.

No one knows exactly how many people in Quejá died in the mudslide, though local officials put the toll at about 100. The Guatemalan government called off the search for the dead in early November.

Reyna Cal Sis, the principal of the town’s primary school, believes 19 of
her students died that day, including a 14-year-old named Martín, who helped her clean up after class.

“He had just started sprouting hairs on his upper lip,” she says. “He lived with his mother and his siblings, right near where the land came down.”

With little government support, Guatemalans have had to come up with creative solutions. Near the border with Mexico, people pack into handmade rafts to cross the lakes created by the storms. To cross one river, people hop into a wire basket attached to a zip line where a bridge used to be.

No one knows exactly how many people in Quejá died in the mudslide, though local officials put the toll at about 100. The Guatemalan government called off the search for the dead in early November.

Reyna Cal Sis is the principal of the town’s primary school. She believes 19 of her students died that day. Among them was a 14-year-old named Martín, who helped her clean up after class.

“He had just started sprouting hairs on his upper lip,” she says. “He lived with his mother and his siblings, right near where the land came down.”

Yoseph Amaya/Getty Images

In Honduras, an international airport in La Lima was flooded.

The boulders covering Quejá are almost as tall as the electricity wires. The only road into the village is encased in mud so thick and wet that its residents leave holes in it the shape of legs. Still, they walk it, carrying tattered wardrobes and bags of coffee beans on their backs, extracting what they can from the wreckage of their homes.

People started leaving here for the U.S. a few years ago, but Cal Sis is certain more will follow.

“They are determined, now that they’ve lost almost everything,” she says.

Suc, 35, was eating lunch with his family when the mudslide happened. “It was like two bombs exploding,” he says. He ran out to find a gusher of mud crushing everything in sight.

The boulders covering Quejá are almost as tall as the electricity wires. The only road into the village is encased in mud so thick and wet that its residents leave holes in it the shape of legs. Still, they walk it, carrying tattered wardrobes and bags of coffee beans on their backs. They take what they can from the wreckage of their homes.

People started leaving here for the U.S. a few years ago, but Cal Sis is certain more will follow.

“They are determined, now that they’ve lost almost everything,” she says.

Suc, 35, was eating lunch with his family when the mudslide happened. “It was like two bombs exploding,” he says. He ran out to find a gusher of mud crushing everything in sight.

No one knows how many died in the mudslide.

After the disaster, Suc walked for four hours to reach Santa Elena, the nearest dry village, pulling along his grandfather and handing two of his children to stronger, taller family members who hoisted them above waist-deep water on the journey. But after he and other survivors spent weeks in makeshift shelters there, the town’s hospitality ran out, and Suc is now looking for anywhere else to go. He has no idea how he could make it to the U.S., but he’s ready to try.

“Yes, we’re thinking about migrating,” he said, eyeing the dwindling bag of corn he has left to feed his family. “Because, to give our children bread. We have nothing.”

After the disaster, Suc walked for four hours to reach Santa Elena, the nearest dry village. He pulled his grandfather along on the journey. Stronger, taller family members lifted two of his children above the waist-deep water. But after Suc and other survivors spent weeks in makeshift shelters there, the town’s hospitality ran out. He is now looking for anywhere else to go. He has no idea how he could make it to the U.S., but he’s ready to try.

“Yes, we’re thinking about migrating,” he said, eyeing the dwindling bag of corn he has left to feed his family. “Because, to give our children bread. We have nothing.”

Natalie Kitroeff covers Central America for The New York Times.

Natalie Kitroeff covers Central America for The New York Times.

Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Thousands of Honduran migrants heading north push past police at the Guatemalan border in January.

Immigration Reboot?

President Biden changes the tone on immigrants, but that doesn’t mean an open door to everyone in need. By Patricia Smith

By mid-February, thousands of Central American migrants were amassing on the U.S.-Mexican border, hoping that President Biden would be more welcoming.

It’s an early test of how the new president will handle immigration, which will be a big change from the Trump administration.

“It is going to be a big shift in tone,” says Ariel Ruiz of the Migration Policy Institute. “The Biden administration is going to elevate and prioritize humanitarian rights for immigrants in the United States and for migrants seeking asylum.”

Fundamentally, President Biden sees immigrants as a critical part of the American identity, whereas the Trump administration enacted policies that significantly restricted all forms of immigration.

On Biden’s first day as president, he issued executive orders to end the travel bans from majority-Muslim countries, to stop construction of the wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and to protect DACA recipients from deportation. (DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, protects young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children.) Biden also sent a major immigration reform bill to Congress, including a call to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. This bill, however, faces a tough fight in Congress.

All this sends a signal that there will be a big shift in how immigration is treated. But that more welcoming signal has already started to create a new problem. Thousands of families have begun to cross the border in hopes that their asylum claims will now be considered.

These developments put the Biden team in a bind.

“They’re trying to enact progressive immigration policies while at the same time avoiding triggering new migration flows,” Ruiz says. “It’s a conundrum for the Biden administration.”

By mid-February, thousands of Central American migrants were amassing on the U.S.-Mexican border, hoping that President Biden would be more welcoming.

It’s an early test of how the new president will handle immigration, which will be a big change from the Trump administration.

“It is going to be a big shift in tone,” says Ariel Ruiz of the Migration Policy Institute. “The Biden administration is going to elevate and prioritize humanitarian rights for immigrants in the United States and for migrants seeking asylum.”

Fundamentally, President Biden sees immigrants as a critical part of the American identity, whereas the Trump administration enacted policies that significantly restricted all forms of immigration.

On Biden’s first day as president, he issued executive orders to end the travel bans from majority-Muslim countries, to stop construction of the wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, and to protect DACA recipients from deportation. (DACA, which stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, protects young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children.) Biden also sent a major immigration reform bill to Congress, including a call to create a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. This bill, however, faces a tough fight in Congress.

All this sends a signal that there will be a big shift in how immigration is treated. But that more welcoming signal has already started to create a new problem. Thousands of families have begun to cross the border in hopes that their asylum claims will now be considered.

These developments put the Biden team in a bind.

“They’re trying to enact progressive immigration policies while at the same time avoiding triggering new migration flows,” Ruiz says. “It’s a conundrum for the Biden administration.”

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